Like many Americans, we like plastic bags.
Rare is the household that hasn’t used them to pack a lunch or collect household waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans like plastic bags so much, we use 380 billion of them a year.
But only five percent of single-use bags ever get recycled; most find their way into landfills and local waters threatening animal life up and down the food chain. Eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year.
Plastic grocery bags only represent a fraction of this pollution, but reducing consumption is a good place to start. The price of convenience is just too high.
It’s why the State Senate wisely approved a prohibition on single-use plastic bags. If SB 5323 gets House approval, and it should, shoppers will never again hear the words, “Paper or plastic?”
Washington is poised to become the second state, behind California, with a statewide bag ban. Stores would have until 2020 to use up existing stock before facing a $250 fine for violations.
In spite of efforts to reuse and recycle, Washington State still uses about 2 billion plastic bags per year and the result is found at every level of the ecosystem.
As Karen Povey, a Metro Parks Zoo conservation manager explained to the editorial board last week, “Plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they don’t go away; instead they are ingested by sea birds, marine life and ultimately us.”
Kudos to Metro Parks Zoo and Northwest Trek for leading by example. They’ve implemented greener purchasing practices and eliminated single-use plastic wherever possible. Water sold at the parks now comes in aluminum cans.
You might say they have a vested interest: An estimated one million birds and 100,000 turtles and other sea animals die of starvation every year because plastic. Povey warns that by 2050 plastics in the ocean will outweigh the fish.
So, yeah, our flagrant use of plastic has to stop.
Washington lawmakers hope the sting of an eight cent bag fee will be enough to encourage consumers to change their shopping ways and BYOB. Shoppers in Bellingham have already been paying a five-cent-per-bag fee since 2012 when the city implemented its plastic bag ordinance. Bellingham is one of 28 jurisdictions across the state that regulate bags.
With the passage of SB 5323, the guesswork caused by the state’s current patchwork of bans would be over.
It would be nice to see the eight-cent revenue go toward ocean clean-up and other conservation efforts, but the fee is not a tax; instead, grocery stores get to pocket the change. But here’s the good news: The Northwest Grocery Association anticipates an 85 percent total bag reduction if the measure goes through.
There are fee exemptions for low-income shoppers. Customers with benefit cards (EBT, WIC, TANF) will not pay, and in-store plastic bags meant for direct contact with food, such as produce, meat and bulk foods will still be free as will bags provided by restaurants, dry cleaning shops and pharmacies.
Single-use plastic bags are convenient and useful, but the flimsy tumbleweeds also litter up our neighborhoods and clog machinery at recycling facilities. Washington Ecology estimates that it costs $700-$1,000 per ton for recycling centers to remove plastic films from other recyclables.
And then there are the turtles.
As Bruce Speight Executive Director of Environment Washington said, “Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our oceans and rivers and threaten wildlife for centuries.”